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Conflict with Iraq: Rescue of Jessica Lynch is highly unusual in history

Thursday, April 3, 2003

By JOAN LOWY, Scripps Howard News Service

The raid this week that freed Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital after 10 days of captivity may be the first successful planned raid by U.S. forces to free an American prisoner of war since World War II, authorities on POWs and military history said.

U.S. commandos who swoop in during the dead of night to pluck an American POW from behind enemy lines and then fly away to safety are a staple of pulp fiction and "Rambo" movies, but it rarely happens like that in real life.

Army PFC Jessica Lynch, shown in this image from video released by the Department of Defense Wednesday April 2, 2003, is carried by U.S. special forces as she is removed from the Saddam Hospital in Nasiryia, Iraq, early Tuesday, April 1, 2003. Department of Defense handout/APTN

"I researched that for 30 years inside and out and to the best of my knowledge, belief and understanding there has not been a successful prisoner of war rescue mission" since Army Rangers freed more than 500 POWs from a Japanese prison camp near Cabanatuan in the Philippines in 1945, said author Benjamin Schemmer, a West Point graduate and former Ranger and paratrooper.

William Epley, a historian at the Army's military history center, cautioned that it's difficult to draw comparisons between incidents because they almost always have enough differences to qualify them as "unique."

"The problem historians have is when you compare instances there are always specifics of those events that are very different," Epley said. "To link them together and say 'this is the first one that happened' or 'this is the only one that has ever happened' is difficult."

However, this week's raid that freed Lynch, a 19-year-old supply company clerk, was certainly "pretty remarkable for a planned rescue mission," Epley said.

Even the Cabanatuan raid was significantly different because it was an attempt to free a large number of prisoners being held in a prison camp, rather than a hospital, Epley said. The raid also took place as the Japanese were withdrawing from that part of the Philippines and so the camp was lightly defended, he said.

The hospital where Lynch was held was also in an area that, while not under U.S. control, was behind the most forward point of U.S. lines rather than deep inside enemy territory, Epley noted.

"It all depends upon how you define 'rescue mission,' " Epley said. It was probably not uncommon for American forces in Vietnam and Korea during the course of battle to free troops who had been taken captive temporarily, but not yet moved back to POW camps, he said.

However, those were not planned raids designed to free POWs, which have been few and far between. One of the best-known raids was on Nov. 21, 1970, when more than 100 U.S. warplanes created a diversion over Hanoi while commandos attempted to rescue 61 American POWs reportedly being held at the Son Tay prison camp.

The commando raid was over in less than 30 minutes without any Americans being rescued because the prisoners had been moved from Son Tay four and a half months earlier, according to Schemmer's book on the episode, "The Raid."

In the 1989 invasion of Panama, special operations forces launched a helicopter raid that successfully freed a CIA agent who former strongman Manuel Noriega had imprisoned before the start of the conflict.

U.S. forces also freed American medical students from Grenada in 1983, but failed to rescue American hostages in Iran after losing eight commandos in a helicopter accident during the "Desert One" raid on April 24, 1980.

There were several instances during the Vietnam and Korean wars and the conflict in the Balkans in which U.S. forces were able to rescue American pilots shot down behind enemy lines before they could be taken captive.


U.S. Army Center for Military History:

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